Water year 2011 (October 1, 2010, through September 30, 2011) was a year of hydrologic drought (based on streamflow) in Oklahoma and the second-driest year to date (based on precipitation) since 1925. Drought conditions worsened substantially in the summer, with the highest monthly average temperature record for all States being broken by Oklahoma in July (89.1 degrees Fahrenheit), June being the second hottest and August being the hottest on record for those months for the State since 1895. Drought conditions continued into the fall, with all of the State continuing to be in severe to exceptional drought through the end of September. In addition to effects on streamflow and reservoirs, the 2011 drought increased damage from wildfires, led to declarations of states of emergency, water-use restrictions, and outdoor burning bans; caused at least $2 billion of losses in the agricultural sector and higher prices for food and other agricultural products; caused losses of tourism and wildlife; reduced hydropower generation; and lowered groundwater levels in State aquifers.
The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, conducted an investigation to compare the severity of the 2011 drought with four previous major hydrologic drought periods during the 20th century – water years 1929–41, 1952–56, 1961–72, and 1976–81.
The period of water years 1925–2011 was selected as the period of record because few continuous record streamflow-gaging stations existed before 1925, and gaps in time existed where no streamflow-gaging stations were operated before 1925. In water year 2011, statewide annual precipitation was the 2d lowest, statewide annual streamflow was 16th lowest, and statewide annual runoff was 42d lowest of those 87 years of record.
Annual area-averaged precipitation totals by the nine National Weather Service climate divisions from water year 2011 were compared to those during four previous major hydrologic drought periods to show how precipitation deficits in Oklahoma varied by region. The nine climate divisions in Oklahoma had precipitation in water year 2011 ranging from 43 to 76 percent of normal annual precipitation, with the Northeast Climate Division having the closest to normal precipitation and the Southwest Climate Division having the greatest percentage of annual deficit. Based on precipitation amounts, water year 2011 ranked as the second driest of the 1925–2011 period, being exceeded only in one year of the 1952 to 1956 drought period.
Regional streamflow patterns for water year 2011 indicate that streamflow in the Arkansas-White-Red water resources region, which includes all of Oklahoma, was relatively large, being only the 26th lowest since 1930, primarily because of normal or above-normal streamflow in the northern part of the region. Twelve long-term streamflow-gaging stations with periods of record ranging from 67 to 83 years were selected to show how streamflow deficits varied by region in Oklahoma. Statewide, streamflow in water year 2011 was greater than streamflows measured in years during the drought periods of 1929–41, 1952–56, 1961–72, and 1976–81. The hydrologic drought worsened going from the northeast toward the southwest in Oklahoma, ranging from 140 percent (above normal streamflow) in the northeast, to 13 percent of normal streamflow in southwestern Oklahoma. The relatively low streamflow in 2011 resulted in 83.3 percent of the statewide conservation storage being available at the end of the water year in major reservoirs, similar to conservation storage in the preceding severe drought year of 2006. The ranking of streamflow as the 16th smallest for the 1925–2011 period, despite precipitation being ranked the 2d smallest, may have been caused, in part, by the relatively large streamflow in northeastern Oklahoma during water year 2011.